The repatriation process for the estimated 650,000 or more Rohingya Muslims that have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh will not begin as planned on Tuesday, officials from both countries have confirmed, after the two sides failed to keep up with their rushed timeline for bringing the refugees home.
But Abul Kalam, Bangladesh's refugee relief and rehabilitation commissioner, said on Monday the return would have to be delayed.
Implementing a returns arrangement finalised last week in its current form would put the safety and rights of more than 650,000 Rohingya who fled a brutal military crackdown past year in serious jeopardy.
By the second week of January, the Myanmar government had verified over 1,200 refugees-750 Muslims and more than 500 Hindus-as refugees entitled to return.
Myanmar yesterday said it was ready to take back the returning Rohingya. Most refugees came in the first month or so after the violence began, but some continue to trickle into Bangladesh, complaining of ill-treatment by authorities.
Myanmar officials could not be reached for comment.
"In order for the repatriation to be right, sustainable, actually viable, you need to really address a number of issues that for the time being we have heard nothing about, including the citizenship issue, the rights of the Rohingyas in Rakhine State, meaning freedom of movement, access to services, to livelihoods", Filippo Grandi told Reuters.
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The UNHCR, which is helping to administer the refugee camps, is not involved in the repatriation process.
By now, Rohingya refugees, living without basic human rights in the crowded makeshift camps of Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar, have accepted uncertainties and miseries in their lives as something "normal".
The Rohingyas sent a petition to the Myanmar government last week where they have raised several demands, including citizenship rights. Officials of the United Nations maintain that the situation in Myanmar is still not conducive for the return of the Rohingyas. "We'll not force them to go back", Bangladesh's foreign minister AH Mahmood Ali told journalists after briefing Dhaka-based diplomats about the repatriation plan on Sunday. A Bangladesh official who oversees the area where most of the camps are located said last week that "we have not finalized anything yet".
"International pressure, because of human rights and humanitarianism, means we have to accept them back, even though we don't want to", Than Tun, a Buddhist leader in Sittwe, the Rakhine state capital, said in a telephone interview. If we get the list, we can start tomorrow.
Members of the Muslim minority community are not recognised by Myanmar's authorities, who consider them Bengali migrants, and refuse to grant them citizenship.
The Rohingyas asked the Myanmar government to return their land to rebuild their homes, mosques and schools. "These works are in progress", Kalam said.
According to the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar, returnees will be accommodated at a camp in Hla Po Khaung in northern Rakhine State, while their houses burned in clashes are rebuilt.